Femen, Ukraine's Topless Warriors

Why the group that inspired Pussy Riot's infamous "punk prayer" could be tough to stop.

Femen-Banner.jpgFemen activists during a rally in Kiev (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

KIEV, Ukraine -- On the tarmac at Kiev's Borispil Airport, during a sun-drenched afternoon last July, 24-year-old Yana Zhdanova tensed up when she saw Kirill I, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, descending the stairs from his just-landed plane.

"I was pumped up with pure adrenalin," she said, clenching her delicate fists as we sat in Femen's office in downtown Kiev. A former journalist with a university degree and a current strip-club dancer, Zhdanova had received accreditation from the Ukrainian church authorities managing Kirill's visit and so stood with members of the press corps covering the event. "They had cordoned us off behind a rope, and I knew I had to get Kirill quickly, when no one would expect it."

As the patriarch, flanked by black-robed deacons, strode down the red carpet smiling and gesticulating solemnly, Zhdanova ripped off her t-shirt, jumped over the rope, and sprinted towards him, raising her fists and shrieking "Izydi von!" -- an incantation uttered by Russian Orthodox priests during exorcisms to drive the devil from the possessed. (You can watch a Russia Today clip of her fearless charge here.) A split-second before she reached her target, a deacon at the patriarch's side jumped to block her, knocking her into the arms of a bodyguard who seized her and led her away, still shouting, the words "KILL KIRILL" flashing in black paint on her back.

That message notwithstanding, Yana averred that she had no intention of murdering the patriarch. Rather, she explained, "I hoped to knock him to the ground, grab his beard, and ritually de-coronate him. He would have been humiliated." She paused, her brown, saucer-shaped eyes radiating not anger, but calm conviction. "He embodies all the repressiveness of the Russian Orthodox Church toward women. Religion and freedom do not go together. Religion is moral persecution that aims to drive women into slavery."

The Democracy ReportThus spoke the perpetrator of one of the most daring acts carried out by one of the most daring -- and unorthodox -- protest groups around, Ukraine-based Femen. Founded in Kiev in 2008 to protest the country's burgeoning sex industry ("Ukraine is not a brothel!" was the slogan of their first -- and still clothed -- demonstration, which aimed to dissuade foreigners from visiting prostitutes in the capital), Femen has since evolved into a vanguard of militant activists who have dubbed themselves the storozhevyye suki demokratii (the "watch-bitches of democracy") and "modern-day Amazons," some of whom demonstrate topless to, says their website "defend with their chests sexual and civic equality throughout the world." The organization has expanded from a handful of university students hailing from eastern Ukraine to 150,000 members worldwide, with four permanent staff members in Kiev. By and large they are an educated group; 60 percent have college degrees. Of the three hundred or so participants in Ukraine, only a few strip for the cause. Femen has pronounced traditional feminism dead, anointed itself the standard-bearer for "a new wave of third-millennium feminism," and pledged to combat "patriarchal society in all its manifestations -- dictatorship, the church, and the sex industry." Its tactics: "sextremism" and "sex-diversion" -- which terms basically mean using bare breasts during protest actions to attract media coverage.

Attacking the patriarch well accorded with Femen's goals. Apart from espousing conservative positions on women and the family, Kirill is suspected of collaborating with the KGB during the Soviet decades, and openly allies himself with Russia's authoritarian president, Vladimir Putin. But this wasn't the first time Femen targeted the church. After tainted elections to the Russian State Duma in December 2011, three topless activists coiffed in floral garlands (one of the group's trademark symbols) demonstrated in front of Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral, flagellating themselves and chanting "May God Drive Away the Tsar!" Their act prefigured Pussy Riot's "punk prayer," which opens with a plea to the Virgin Mary to "drive away Putin," and took place inside the same cathedral.

"Dictator Putin imprisons from without, but Patriarch Kirill imprisons from within, masked as a godly man, with a high rank, speaking God's words," said Zhdanova. "Who can argue with God?" With a disdainful smirk she added, "Kirill was in training as a KGB spy. But they used to send only the third-rate [KGB] students to be priests."

'We want to be the shock troops of a new feminism -- and the sinful past of future female politicians'

How does Zhdanova square working as a stripper with protesting for Femen, which she called "the most important thing in [her] life?" She has never felt shy about disrobing, she said, and implied the question was irrelevant. "For money it's okay to strip, but not for an idea? Doing my job, I see the hypocrisy in men's mentality. Some of my club's clients learn I'm with Femen and criticize me for showing my breasts during the day, but pay me to do so at night. " What counts, she said, is that she's fighting for what she believes in: that women in Ukraine (in the largely chauvinistic society of which senior positions in the public and private sectors tend to go to men) should enjoy equal rights. She had thought of joining mass protests, but decided against it: "they didn't seem so effective. I wanted something much more radical." With Femen she clearly found what she was looking for. Hence the assault on Kirill, which would let her "hit the most sensitive part of people's beliefs and drive a stake into the heart of them."

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Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of seven books.

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